A Philosophical Approach to Foreign Language Learning


     While with colleagues in math, sciences and languages at high school program evaluations, I notice that there has been quite a difference between the subject matter of the disciplines in science and math and that of the foreign languages.  The science and math classrooms have been equipped with apparatus and other evidence of research projects in progress.  An atmosphere of relevance has permeated these classrooms.  The foreign language classrooms evoked a less serious atmosphere, filled with travel posters, Christmas card greetings, and recipes.  Even educational programs in the media that stress education in substandard areas emphasize science and math, with foreign languages delegated to the area of useful cultural advantage knowledge that poor kids should have to bring them to par with the rich kids who acquire foreign languages in their frivolous learning time.  Since I entered my discipline to pursue the study of literature and language, and not to be a

tourist on the Champs-Elysées, I make it known to my students that language study is not only an important cultural elective, but can be the most effective method of achieving an understanding of yourself, of your place in the world, and of raising your conscious capacity of achieving goals.  The subjects at prestigious institutions are less interested in content, and more concerned with improvement of reading and study with both a practical and philosophical attitude. 


     By structuralism, I mean the use of linguistic methods to help analyze social, cultural, and political phenomena. Ferdinand de Saussure divides language into langue and parole, with "langue" being the system, the grammar, while "parole" is the practical everyday executions, the written and spoken manifestations.  In elementary French I work on the latter with help from the former. Saussure, among others, also sees language as a system of signs which are composed of a signifier  (signifiant) or form, and a signified (signifié) meaning.  For example smoke under a visual form means fire and under written form means smoke (clouds as another example).  The revolutionary aspect of the structuralists and post-modernists is the emphasis they placed on the signifier, or how a language signifies.  After explaining the langue-parole differentiation, and the signs, I then show how signs operate on syntagmatic and paradigmatic chains.  Students are required to learn and practice the syntagmatic units, which we used to call sentences, in correct order or agreement, which we used to call syntax.  For example:

              Mireille va à la fac.

              Ils vont au restau-U.

              Mireille voulait être infirmière.


Syntagms are linear and achieve practical communication ends. Syntagm has an advantage over syntax, order of words in a sentence, because it can extend to the order of elements in any linear text, such as political, economic, social, historical biological, sexual and so on. 

     The paradigmatic chains are vertical  and one can substitute elements of their class on the syntamatic  chains.  For example, in "Mireille va à la fac," one can replace Mireille with Cécile, Amélie, Robert, il, elle etc. and still communicate on the syntagmatic line.  If one changes subjects to Je, Tu, etc., one has to make the proper changes on the verb paradigm.  Verbs can also be substituted on the linear chains to make other meaningful statements.  For example, Mireille est, dine, mange, se rend à la fac.  Likewise we can change à la fac to au restau-U, à la bibli, au match de baseball.  The paradigmatic elements have to be suitable. For example,"va va à la fac does not fit."  "Je est un autre" might work, if you are clairvoyant enough.  I try to keep my students focused  on learning the syntagmatic texts with attention to the various paradigms possible including interrogative and negative patterns.   Thinking vertically they become more aware of the structures:

   Je   vais       à la        de la     suis     cette        mon ton son

   Tu   vas        au         du        es        ce            ma  ta  sa

   Il   va           à l'         de l'     est      cet            mes tes ses

   elle va         aux         des     est        ces          notre

   nous allons                          sommes              votre

   vous allez                            êtes                     leur

   ils vont                                sont

   elles vont                            sont

As we move on during the year, I review structuralism, while adding variations of deconstruction, feminism, cultural  history, historicity, plus finer distinctions of language paradigms like  verb tenses and endings, object pronouns which they need in a practical way.If in "Mireille veut être actrice" we change the paradigm to "hier," we have to say "voulait" instead of "veut".  I insist on students learning words in their syntagmatic context with practice in changing the paradigms. 

     At an NEH seminar I, in a witty fashion, asked the senior professor the difference between the notions syntagmatic and paradigmatic and the content-form notions I learned in college.  The "words," he replied in a sarcastic fashion.  Now, however, I believe that with structuralist terminology, one is apt to see more possibilities or paradigms on the syntagmatic text than forms in the content of a novel.  The structuralist tools allow me to be more specific in my observations of written and visual texts.  I then shift the language and literature texts to other cultural texts by asking students their majors to see if we can invent biological texts, musical, historical, athletic  etc.  For example, to build a baseball syntagm, do we need a powerful hitting paradigm?  The cubs have had the most run production since 1908 and have not one the pennant.  Students seem to enjoy this scientific approach and take seriously the connection of language to their disciplines.  Hopefully some will be able to add the foreign language paradigm to their discipline.  As an added bonus to this scientific approach, I add the philosophical notion of time.  The syntagmatic chains are on horizontal linear time chains.  They are practical and must be accomplished to exist.  In our careers we have to produce on this chain gang to receive our salary.  The paradigmatic chain is in eternal time and is concerned more with the how of our work.  In choosing a career, we should reflect on those actions we do during which we do not wait for Friday, or for the bell to ring.  Students pick up this quickly.  "If you can't wait  till it's Friday, which chain are you on?"  Syntagmatic.  Therefore, choose another career. But, when you find a job where you are not aware of time passing, you have arrived at a vocation.  The syntagmatic desire can never be satisfied;  the paradigmatic joy is eternal.

      Later on, after the structuralist introduction into the eternal, I return the students to the everyday world of linear power time to explore language in its relation to desire, sexuality and law.  Here , I implore the help of Lacan, Kristeva, Certeau, and whatever thinkers I happen to be reading at the time.  At MLA last year I heard a trio of papers in a section called "Pedagogy from Left Field," in which Yvonne Ozzello and Mary Lydon questioned whether we teach "langue" (theory) or evaluate "parole" (everyday speech).  They were also concerned about anxiety in foreign language learning and saw Lacan and Kristeva as psychological help. I read some additional Lacan and Kristeva to supplement what I heard at the conference. Lacan is noted for his structuralist reading of Freud, and was the first to translate Freud into French.  Lacan associates language and sexuality and attempts to make all the Freudian terms relative to real life, to give Freud a linguistic  interpretation, since Freud did not have the science of linguistics at his fingertips when he was developing his theories. I find him personally helpful because Freud always seemed unreal to me, for no matter how far I stretched my imagination, I never recalled having any sexual designs on my mother!

     The child learns to speak at the age of two years and is placed in a position between the father and the mother.  Children see that they are submitted before the law of society and the law of language which is in the name of the father.  The father is the primal other, but there exists a polyseme of others and they all seem synonomous with desire.  The mother is at first the object of desire for the child.  The object of desire for the mother is the father.  In the end, I understand that Lacan explains Freud by showing that the child desires what the father desires which turns out to be desire itself, desire and power.  The penis then is symbolic of the phallus which is power.  The structure of this desire is language, and since the desire is not any real object , one sees that no one really has the phallus.

     In the foreign language classroom, Professor Lydon interprets the phallus as language and its acquisition, with emphasis on the "langue."  The "parole" part is not as important as the "langue."  In Lacan's reading of Poe's The Purloined Letter, the signified is less significant than the signifier.  What counts is who has the letter, and not what the letter says. When teachers make mistakes in grammar, it is like a fear of castration contends Professor Lydon.  It is a fear of exposing a weakness, a vulnerability.  To raise this fear to a philosophical discussion of power will give teachers and students more awareness of the difficulties of self-expression, and perhaps more courage to be open and try.  I believe that goals in the language class then are centered on knowledge of the structures in order to reflect on one's own ego structure, to operate independently as possible, and to be able to create new paradigms.

     We have to submit to the law of language.  We cannot make words mean what we want.  No matter what my child does, she cannot make a chair mean a desk.  Here, we can stop and show students various masculine and military paradigms in language to indicate that language is in the law of the father.  For example, ils being the choice to represent mixed groups, words like médecin, professeur being masculine, victime being feminine.  Military and sexual paradigms sometimes go together.  When politicians want to cut off Ho Chi Minh's balls, or kick Saddam's ass, there is  a good chance they want to arouse our virility and go to war.  A friend using this language might just be mad, but a politician might be trying to get you killed.  We do have to submit to the laws of language, but it is still beneficial to be aware of the paradigms, so that we have at least a chance of altering some of them, or as my brother's stock broker mentor said, I want to be the first to panic.

     Julia Kristeva  contends that poetry in language is the desire to be revolutionary and to change the normal paradigms.  Michel de Certeau uses the word "tactics" to describe this revolution.  The rich and the powerful use strategies or rules to keep their places secure on the syntagmatic chain.  Whereas the weak and the poor, the real heroes of civilization use tactics to move about in time on their syntagmatic chains.  These every day heroes are artists  as they practice every day life in cooking, shopping, traveling, story telling, walking, etc.  The rich and powerful control places, but the everyday people who succeed have the greater ability to move about in time in the various every day paradigms or practices.  The ultimate tactic in face of death is memory.  It is certainly a tactic in face of disappearing places. 

     One of the tactics that aid us in learning is memory.  I insist on students memorizing the syntagmatic units outside of class so that we can practice them when we are together.  In class I also have cultural units, mini lectures on philosophic or political ideas, and exercises in reading. Since memory is the key to learning, I will conclude this presentation with a sample of how I work with students to apply structuralism, and related reading tools, to more elevated texts, and in this case the great poem on memory, Apollinaire's "Le Pont Mirabeau.  I do not hand out a copy of the poem, but write it on the board, from memory, and thus we go over the literal meaning of the poem line by line, stanza by stanza.


            Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

                       Et nos amours

                  Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne

            La joie venait toujours après la peine   


                                              Vient la nuit sonne l'heure

                                              Les jours s'en vont je demeure


After the literal meaning we look for paradigms, and see words of permanence - je demeure, le pont, la Seine, words of change - coule, les jours s'en vont, and words of reoccurance - sonne l'heure, la joie venait toujours après la peine.  The bridge is a place of memory. 

In the second stanza the poet remembers.


            Les mains dans les mains restons face à face

                             Tandis que sous

                     Le pont de nos bras passe

            Des eternels regards l'onde si lasse


                                                 Vient la nuit sonne l'heure

                                                 Les jours s'en vont je demeure


The poet and lover, in the recollection of the poet, make a bridge with their hands.  Under this bridge flows their lives, and their eternal looks  desire  infinite love, but it is a weary wave of eternal looks because of their knowledge of the death of all things.  The bridge here is a different sign, more like metonymy, where the lovers' desire really forms a bridge.

        In the third stanza the poet laments the passing of time.


            L'amour s'en va comme cette eau courante

                         L'amour s'en va

                      Comme la vie est lente

            Et comme l'espérance est violente


                                          Vient la nuit sonne l'heure

                                          Les jours s'en vont je demeure


The passing of time, the fleeing of love move like the flowing water.  The word "comme" is used to compare, and then to exclaim how slow life is, but how violent is hope too.

     In the fourth stanza the poet appears to give up on recapturing the lost love.


             Passent les jours et passent les semaines

                              Ni temps passé

                       Ni les amours reviennent

            Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine


                                                        Vient la nuit sonne l'heure

                                                         Les jours s'en vont je demeure


     Upon looking at the various structures of the poem, one sees that there are several paradigms of memory:  the thesis, antithesis,synthesis of permanence, change and reoccurence;  the real bridge under which passes real water and figurative or shadowy past loves and experiences;  the real bridge of the lovers' arms under which passes their hopeless desire for the eternal;  the violent effort of hope trying to remember the ephemeral;  and the last verse remembering the first,"Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine."  We also have a visual paradigm in the poem's visual appearance.









In Paris the bridges have an arch type structure under them that support the passage on top.  The poem then is in the shape of a bridge.  The refrain would be the water and life going under it.  The poem is therefore structured like a bridge which also helps us remember.    


We also have a pattern of uses for the verb venir which I can restructure to look like this:


                   Le Pont Mirabeau   


                 vient et revient la Seine


La Seine vient sous le pont.  The Seine comes from under the bridge.  When we leave a striking place we purchase souvenirs to help us remember it.  When we remember we are making the past come from under the surface of our everyday world.  The everyday hero who cannot afford to buy souvenirs calls on the art of memory to make the syntagmatic past ascend into the paradigms of sight, sound, metaphor, metonymy and other figures of speech, into eternity.


In the end is the poet saying, let the days pass, me, the Mirabeau Bridge, I will stay and remember, or, the days pass,  all things pass, only water flows under the bridge, not our loves or past time.

One final structural tool I use in poetry is a four-fold approach similar to Dante's historical-allegorical-tropological-anagogical interpretations of each symbol in his work.  I proceed from literal to metaphoric to symbolic to mythical.  The literal meaning is the attempt to remember the past love.  The major metaphor is the bridge and memory.  I interpret symbol as the experiences of the metaphor.  Here the experiences are the attempts at reoccurence, the laments, visual remembrances, and the struggle to accept memory in place of the real thing. The myth is the big universal meaning applicable to most people.  Recently, I came upon the notion of this bridge being an arch with its archetype as Noah's ark in the Old Testament.  The moral there was be prepared.  Memory therefore is an arch which will connect our finite mediocre selves with our infinite exciting selves.  To use it we must practice, for example by taking a foreign language, so that we are ready when the big experiences come.

     As a final exercise, I want you all to imagine that it is midnight in Paris on the Pont Mirabeau, and you are recalling a past love, past relative, or some poignant moment in your life.  If reading this paper, please read the poem again, or better, memorize it.  Bon voyage.



Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics:  Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975;  Ithaca:  Cornell UP, 1988) 4.

Ferdinand de Saussure.  "From a Course in General Linguistics,"  Critical Theory Since 1965, Hazard Adams,ed.  (Tallahassee:  Florida State UP, `1986) 644-656.

Jacques Lacan.  Ecrits:  A Selection, Alan Sheridan, trans.  (1966;  New York:  Norton, 1977)  114-146, 146-178.

Malcolm Bowie. "Jacques Lacan," Structuralism and Since, John Sturrock, ed.  (Oxford:  OxfordUP, 1979)  116-153.

Raman Selden.  A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Theory (Kentucky:  University of Kentucky Press, 1989) 82-84.

Michel de Certeau.  The Practice of Everyday Life, Steven Randall, trans. (1984;  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1988) 32-37, 77-78.

Lacan distinguishes between metaphor and metonymy on the signifying chain.  Metaphor is repressive and condensing, while metonymy is operative, positive, and displacing.  Here, if we accept the poem's action as metaphoric, the bridge and river in place of the poet's experiences, we have a static, pessimistic view, but if we see the poet's memories as metonymic, as a desire to recreate his experiences, we have a more positive impression, like the lovers creating a bridge with their arms.